Recently a good friend of mine from the States made this casual announcement to me.
“Oh, by the way,” she wrote, halfway down her email, “I quit seeing Dr. C. It was getting to be too expensive. I received a bill for way more than the last one and I called to see why. Dr. C looked into it and left a voice mail on my machine about the insurance company’s calculations. So I took the bill and paid it and in the envelope I stuck a note thanking him for investigating and also saying I decided to discontinue therapy. It was a nice note so I am sure he will take it the way it was intended. He’s not like your therapist anyway and he will not try to get me back, which is GOOD.”
I responded to her by saying, “Wow. That was some by-the-way.”
I had a lot of internal reactions to her decision, but at least one of them was a feeling of relief. How to explain? It wasn’t rational, but it seemed to me that the relief had something to do with a lessening of the competition. She and I did not have the same therapist; she and I did not even live in the same country! But somehow the termination of her therapeutic relationship made mine feel more secure. I had Ronit more to myself now. I didn’t have to share her. But I had never had to share her – not with this friend. So, was it the experience I no longer had to share? The intimacy? Was it that I didn’t want anyone else to have what I had, even if they were having it with someone else?
“It’s the same kind of relief I feel when I stop seeing one of the regulars here,” I said to Ronit. “Even though they’re coming to see one of the other therapists, and not you, I’m happy when I don’t see them anymore. I’m happy when I think they’re finished. And then I’m disappointed when they show up again.”
Ronit seemed perplexed. “Why?” she said.
I thought about it. “Zero-sum game?” I suggested. Then, assuming she might not be familiar with this English-language expression, I added, “One person’s loss is another person’s gain. Can’t have two winners.”
I smiled. “I guess you think you can.”
“If you’ve found therapy to be helpful to you,” she continued, “why wouldn’t you want your friend to be helped too?”
I didn’t answer directly. I said what came to mind next. “Not long ago my sister said something about my having been the favorite when we were growing up. And I said: I really don’t think there was a favorite in our house. And she kind of laughed and said: The favorite never thinks there’s a favorite.”
“So,” Ronit said, “you’d like to be the favorite here.”
I bristled. I wanted to say, Duh. Instead I said, “Wouldn’t everybody? Doesn’t everybody?”
The look on Ronit’s face made me think that maybe everybody wouldn’t, maybe everybody didn’t. Maybe some people wanted to be the least favorite. Maybe some people didn’t care either way. Who knew? I guessed there were all kinds.
“I don’t know if I was the favorite,” I said, “but I did get a lot of accolades, especially from my father. And then maybe I got greedy for them. And didn’t want to share them. I got addicted. He created a beast, and the beast had to be fed. Still does.”
“The beast,” Ronit said.
I remembered how, as a child, my father had often referred to me as Little Miss Perfect, and how he had done so in front of my siblings. My mother had disapproved, and so naturally he had done it even more. Had she disapproved for my sake? For my siblings’s sakes? For her sake? Who had it been bad for? Who had it been worst for? I remembered what my therapist friend had once said to me, about how being the Oedipal victor could fuck you up for life.
Michael Kahn, in his book Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the Twenty First Century, writes: “Parents can facilitate or hinder a successful resolution of the Oedipus complex. One of the most common and destructive outcomes of the complex is that in which the child believes he or she has won the competition with the same-sex parent . . . Unconsciously, the daughter passionately desires the victory. That is the reason the victory is so terribly costly . . . We cannot remind ourselves too often that, in the realm of primary process, the wish is equivalent to the act.”
My father was a handful. He was high-maintenance. I think I’d had the sense that anyone who could help out should. I think I’d had the sense that the job of wife and helpmate was open. Kahn writes that a mother can “vacate the field” in a variety of ways. For one, she may “lose interest in the father and send the message that she would like the daughter to take over for her.” He also writes: “For a girl to consider herself the Oedipal victor she must get the message either that her mother has abdicated in her favor or that her father simply prefers her to her mother.”
“Anyway,” I said to Ronit now, “this friend of mine who quit therapy never really wanted to be there in the first place.”
“So why was she?”
I shrugged. “Situational. And then her situation improved.”
In the quiet that descended then, I wondered whether we were talking about me, and not only about my friend. My situation had improved too, and despite my decision to continue working with Ronit in Tel Aviv in the fall, I was not unambivalent about it. A part of me wondered whether at the eleventh hour I might even back out, decide that her closing of her Jerusalem practice signaled a natural ending to our relationship. How did one know when one was finished? It wasn’t as if we had ever set any particular goals. When we first started out, Ronit had said that people came to therapy when they were suffering. Was I suffering? I mean, was I suffering more than a person should be?
“We didn’t talk about the last part of your friend’s email,” Ronit said.
“Right!” I said. “She even put the word good in all caps! ‘He will not try to get me back and that’s GOOD.'”
I smiled, but Ronit didn’t. She said nothing.
“This friend worries a lot about money,” I continued, “and it would just be easier for her if he didn’t fight her on this. Aren’t there therapists out there who will let their patients go without a fight?”
“You think this is my own wishful thinking,” I said. “You think this is like my not wanting anyone else to have what I have. You think I’m the one who’s letting her go without a fight because I want to have you – because I want to have all therapists – to myself.”
“Zero-sum game?” Ronit said.
“So in other words, one can never take another person at face value,” I said. “Even if this friend tells me she doesn’t want to be pursued, you’re saying that she really does.”
I left the session feeling irritated with Ronit. But then when I got home there was an email from my friend, a continuation of our email discussion about her termination with Dr. C, and I felt something else entirely.
“Yeah,” her email said, “I never knew exactly why I was there, so this feels fine to me. For now anyway.”